Big Sky Tournament Preview: Montana readies to defend title

James Snook-US PRESSWIRE

A team-by-team preview of the Big Sky Conference Tournament.

The scene is familiar to fans of mid-major teams: many teams, one bid. In the Big Sky, seven teams will compete for an NCAA Tournament berth on the home court of the Montana Grizzlies, outright Big Sky regular season champs for the second-straight year.

With action beginning Thursday, here's a breakdown of each team that will take the floor in Missoula.


Related: Big Sky tournament schedule


7. NORTHERN ARIZONA LUMBERJACKS

Record: 11-20 (8-12)
RPI: 260
Last NCAA Tournament: 2000

STAT LEADERS

Points: Gabe Rogers, 18.1 PPG
Reb: Stallon Saldivar & Gaellan Bewernick, 5.8 RPG
Assists: Saldivar, 4.7 APG
FG%: Max Jacobsen, 60.7%
3PT%: Rogers, 36.6%
FT%: Michael Dunn, 81.4%

1st Rd Matchup: [2] Weber State, 24-5 (18-2)
Previous Meetings: 0-2 (Road: L 83-70, Home: L 80-78 OT)

The Jacks played their way into contention for a top seed before losing its last three against Weber State, Montana, and Montana State. While Weber State is beyond formidable, NAU ended up with a great draw here. On March 2, NAU led the Wildcats by 7 with 1:22 to play before Weber guard Davion Berry took over and got the game to overtime, where NAU couldn't hold on.

So with intimidation off the table, it will be up to Northern Arizona to keep up with the athletic Wildcats. Gabe Rogers has shot the ball very well in the second half of the season and scored 25 in that March 2 loss. For the first round and for the tournament, the Lumberjacks will need Rogers to be on-point throughout.

NAU knows what its getting from Stallon Saldivar, a perfect glue guy -- but it won't be points. So Dewayne Russell or Max Jacobsen will need to be there to bolster Rogers for a run.

TITLE CHANCES: Non-existent. Because the Big Sky re-seeds the tournament after the first round, a Thursday win over Weber State would result in a semifinal matchup with Montana on its home floor. The three-games-in-three-days scenario is generally doable, but very hard when the first two games are against teams with a combined record of 47-11. And NAU hasn't been consistent enough to prove it can run that gauntlet.

6. SOUTHERN UTAH THUNDERBIRDS

Record: 11-19 (8-12)
RPI: 306
Last NCAA Tournament: 2001

STAT LEADERS

Points: Jackson Stevenett, 17.7 PPG
Reb: Stevenett, 6.2 RPG
Assists: Damon Heuir, 3.3 APG
FG%: Jaren Jeffery, 48.3%
3PT%: Wade Collie, 39.2% Jordan Johnson, 35.3%
FT%: Stevenett, 86.9%

1st Rd Matchup: [3] North Dakota, 15-15 (12-8)
Previous Meetings: 1-1 (Home: W 79-67, Road: L 68-61)

Once 8-5 just past midway through their first Big Sky conference campaign, and in third place, the T-Birds dropped their final seven conference games, including to bottom-dwellers Portland State and Eastern Washington.

The final six games of the losing streak coincided with the loss of Wade Collie, who was arrested and suspended after being charged with drug possession. Collie was SUU's third-leading scorer and its best three-point shooter. Since then, the T-Birds have obviously struggled.

Southern Utah competed well against North Dakota on Saturday, but need every bit of scoring from Jackson Stevenett and Damon Heuir in order to win. It's hard to lose your 6'6" starting swingman and keep things going.

TITLE CHANCES: Non-existent. The loss of Collie has been too much for Southern Utah, and the assumption is a first-round upset of UND would mean a second-round matchup with Weber State, with whom SUU has struggled.

5. NORTHERN COLORADO BEARS

Record: 12-17 (10-10)
RPI: 272
Last NCAA Tournament: 2011

STAT LEADERS

Points: Derrick Barden & Tate Unruh, 13.6 PPG
Reb: Barden, 9.1 RPG
Assists: Tevin Svihovec, 3.3 APG
FG%: Barden, 55.3%
3PT%: Connor Osborne, 50.0%
FT%: Unruh, 88.9%

1st Rd Matchup: [4] Montana State, 13-16 (10-10)
Previous Meetings: 1-1 (Home: L 69-66, Road: W 85-72)

It's a little bit of a mystery why Northern Colorado wasn't better this season, but the Bears still can pack a punch. Why? They can shoot the ball. Every major contributor shoots 44% or better from the field, with Derrick Barden and Connor Osborne over 52%. Those two, combined with Tate Unruh and Paul Garnica, all shoot better than 41% from the three-point line as well.

Their first-round matchup with Montana State is a quintessential four-five game: Both teams were a perfectly-average 10-10 in conference play, and split head-to-head with wins on the other's home court.

Northern Colorado's win over Montana State displays exactly why the Bears at least can be dangerous: Every starter scored 11 points or more and as a team, NoCo shot 61.7% (29-47). If the shooters are on, opponent beware. Plus, Derrick Barden does a little of everything for the Bears, and does it all very well.

TITLE CHANCES: Dark Horse. In the conference tournament setting, a team that can get as scorching hot as Northern Colorado always has a shot. But it's not always there to save the Bears, hence the 10-10 record. We'll only know which team shows up when the ball is tipped.

4. MONTANA STATE BOBCATS

Record: 13-16 (10-10)
RPI: 310
Last NCAA Tournament: 1996

STAT LEADERS

Points: Christian Moon, 13.8 PPG
Reb: Paul Egwuonwu, 6.7 RPG
Assists: Antonio Biglow, 3.0 APG
FG%: Blake Brumwell, 62.8%
3PT%: Moon, 41.0%
FT%: Moon, 81.8%

1st Rd Matchup: [5] Northern Colorado, 12-17 (10-10)
Previous Meetings: 1-1 (Home: L 85-72, Road: W 69-66)

Christian Moon and Flavien Davis make a formidable duo for the Bobcats, who at one point were 7-5 in conference play. Those seven wins included an upset over Weber State, and almost became eight wins as the Bobcats dropped an overtime contest with Montana.

Offensively, MSU can score. It's defense where the Bobcats have struggled. MSU allows opponents to shoot 48.1% from the field, good for 339th in the nation (among 347 teams. In other words: Terrible.) It all depends on the defense.

TITLE CHANCES: Dark Horse. The season at least bears out one thing: The only team to truly compete with Montana and Weber State was Montana State. The Bobcats lost at home to Montana by three, and the OT loss to the Grizzlies was on the road -- the site of the tournament. If the defense can come together for three days, the Bobcats have at least some shot.

3. NORTH DAKOTA

Record: 15-15 (12-8)
RPI: 228
Last NCAA Tournament: Have never appeared.

STAT LEADERS

Points: Troy Huff, 19.2 PPG
Reb: Huff, 7.1 RPG
Assists: Jamal Webb, 4.1 APG
FG%: Brandon Brekke, 50.7%
3PT%: Aaron Anderson, 42.1%
FT%: Anderson, 85.7%

1st Rd Matchup: [6] Southern Utah, 11-19 (8-12)
Previous Meetings: 1-1 (Road: L 79-67, Home: W 68-61)

North Dakota will play Southern Utah for the second time in a row after defeating the Thunderbirds at home to finish the regular season. UND is a tough read, because it doesn't do any one thing particularly well that jumps out at you. The offense is average, the defense is average, but on the strength of Troy Huff's power, UND wins some games.

In fact, the nickname-less squad went 13-7 over its final 20 games and has steadily carved out a nice season. Its task will be to shoot better in the tournament than it has throughout the season. Possessions tend to be fewer in tournament play, so the team pace of 42% from the field and 33.9% from behind the arc won't cut it. UND will need a great week from Huff and another contributor -- like the solid point guard Jamal Webb -- to score at a higher clip.

TITLE CHANCES: Unlikely. It seems weird to give more of a nod to the four and five seeds than the three, but North Dakota simply hasn't competed with Montana or Weber State. If seeds hold, the second round draw would be Weber State, a team to which UND lost by 15 at home and by 32 on the road. The matchups just aren't there for UND against the top two teams.

2. WEBER STATE WILDCATS

Record: 24-5 (18-2)
RPI: 94
Last NCAA Tournament: 2007

STAT LEADERS

Points: Davion Berry, 15.1 PPG
Reb: Joel Bolomboy, 7.6 RPG
Assists: Berry, 3.6 APG
FG%: Frank Otis, 61.9%
3PT%: Jordan Richardson, 46.1%
FT%: Scott Bamforth, 88.1%

1st Rd Matchup: [7] Northern Arizona, 11-20 (8-12)
Previous Meetings: 2-0 (Road: W 80-78 OT, Home: W 83-70)

When running through the stats, you almost wonder how Weber State loses games. The Wildcats are #1 in the nation in field goal percentage (50.8%), three-point field goal percentage (43.3%), and three-point field goal percentage defense (28.0%). Their overall field goal percentage defense ranks 36th (39.4%).

The Wildcats are generally okay in the turnover department, but trouble starts when they aren't okay. WSU ranks a respectable 124th at 12.7 per game, but tallied 14 and 16 in its two conference losses to Montana and Montana State. The other area for concern is free throw shooting, an area where Weber State shoots just 72%.

When things are working -- and lately they are, as Weber has won 11 straight games -- this team displays a remarkable balance. Six different players have led the Wildcats in single-game highs. Senior forward Frank Otis led the nation in field goal percentage until recently, but only shoots six times per game.

There has to be at least some psychological element to Weber's prospects here, though. As good as the Wildcats always are, they haven't been dancing since 2007. And every time, it's Montana in the way. (See Johnson, Anthony.) Even with a once-in-a-lifetime talent in Damian Lillard donning the purple and white, Montana still turned Weber away.

This is possibly the most athletic unit in Weber's history -- but will the Wildcats make it matter?

TITLE CHANCES: Good. When you consider WSU's loss to Montana came by two points and its win over the Griz came by 24, things start looking good for the Wildcats. In those two games, WSU forwards Frank Otis, Kyle Tresnak, and Joel Bolomboy shot a combined 28-39 from the field. Those results came with 6'7" Montana forward Mathias Ward on the court -- a place he will not be during this tournament, as the big man is sidelined after foot surgery. Ultimately, that could give Weber the edge.

1. MONTANA GRIZZLIES

Record: 23-6 (19-1)
RPI: 89
Last NCAA Tournament: 2012

STAT LEADERS

Points: Mathias Ward, 14.8 PPG Kareem Jamar, 14.2 PPG
Reb: Jamar, 5.9 RPG
Assists: Will Cherry, 4.2 APG
FG%: Eric Hutchison, 52.2%
3PT%: Mike Weisner, 46.8%
FT%: Weisner, 92.9%

1st Rd Matchup: Bye

Let's play hot tub time machine crystal ball. It's early November. With my crystal ball, I would tell you that for the 2012-13 season, the Montana Grizzlies will be without all-conference point guard Will Cherry for the entirety of the non-conference slate. I would also tell you that both Cherry and leading-scorer Mathias Ward will both miss the final four games of the regular season.

It would be a surprise to know from that same crystal ball that Montana would still finish 23-6 and go 19-1 in conference play. Here we are, and it's a strong testament to head coach Wayne Tinkle's abilities.

It also points a lot of attention toward 6'5" point-forward Kareem Jamar, the newly-minted Big Sky Player of the Year. Jamar narrowly trailed Ward for the Griz's leading-scorer title at 14.2 points per game, led the team in rebounds at 5.9 per game, and dished 4.1 assists per game -- just as many as the point guard Cherry.

While Jamar has become the clear backbone of the team, other players can do damage -- something the Grizzlies will need with Ward on the sideline. Spencer Coleman, Mike Weisner, and Eric Hutchison will need to combine efforts for a solid frontcourt offering.

TITLE CHANCES: Probable. Montana has quite a streak to continue, despite injuries. The Griz are 36-2 in the last two seasons of Big Sky play when including last year's conference tournament. Tinkle has created a program with which to be reckoned, and it's hard to ignore. That 36-2 conference record includes a mark of 20-0 at home, and three of those home wins are against Weber State (the only two losses are from Weber State, too). In the end, I won't believe Montana will lose at home until someone actually makes it happen.

I can't wait for Thursday to get it started.

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